Gregorian Chants: Missa in Festo Pentacostes

The spring of 1974 saw me trying to reconcile the faith-based belief system I had grown up with as a Roman Catholic with the rational one I was developing based on my studies of philosophy. The fall of the previous year, I had read Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, which contained the following question that set me on this path: “Is it not of the utmost necessity to construct a pure moral philosophy which is completely freed from everything which may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology?” In other words as the book’s translator said: “Only pure reason can decide what is an absolutely universal law, permitting no exceptions.” My goal therefore became to find an intellectual path–by reading philosophy–to the spiritual.

While these thoughts gained ground in one part of my brain, the older part, steeped in the rituals and tradition of the church, was frantically trying to do damage control. Living with my parents, I went to church every Sunday, and actually started listening to the priest’s homilies. It just so happened that we had a newly-ordained priest assigned to our church that year. For some reason, he seemed to be having the same doubts as I. His sermons contained elegantly constructed philosophical arguments in which you could see him wrestling with his need to use his intellect and the strictures placed on various lines of inquiry by the church.

On weekends, I used to drive around South Bend, Indiana and my hometown of Mishawaka, exploring bookstores, record shops and Catholic churches. Around the turn of the 20th century South Bend had flourished as an industrial center. Many immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe flocked to the area to work at factories like Studebaker’s, Bendix, Uniroyal, and Oliver Farm Equipment. My grandparents, for example, came from Belgium and Hungary in 1904. There were also Serbs, Greeks, Poles, Irish, and Germans who lived in enclaves, each with its own shops.

Every community had built its own church, each one trying to outdo the other. After I learned to drive, I would go poking around these churches pretending that they were European cathedrals. Some were quite impressive-with beautiful stained-glass windows, soaring gothic vaults, and elaborately-carved imitations of Michaelangelo’s Pieta. In the belief that somehow ritual was important, I used to seek out the churches that still celebrated high Mass with incense, traditional music, and the priest singing the liturgy. After Vatican II, mass became increasingly prosaic, and the folk-based melodies almost excruciating. So if I found a church where, for example, mass was said in Hungarian or Polish I would go along even if I didn’t understand a word, in an attempt to rediscover the mystery of the Mass said in Latin.

After feeding my spirit, I’d often go out for some corporeal nourishment. A mall built south of town had pretty much sucked all major businesses dry in downtown South Bend, which became something of a ghost-town. However, you could still find little tiny ethnic grocery stores tucked away in the micro-cultures around the churches. Being something of an amateur gourmet, I would seek out ethnic specialties–pierogies in the Polish bakery, blood sausage at the Hungarian butcher, and baklava at the Greek pastry shop.

Finding classical music also became something of an art in itself. The mall had a record store with a large selection, but they charged about twice as much as other places. I had to spend large amounts of time poking around in the little record and stereo boutiques in the strip malls that seemed to spring up everywhere. It was hard to make out the buying strategy these places employed. In some there would be a bin or two of classical stuff at a good price, but you’d never know what you were going to find. I used to frequent one stereo place that had a cute shop assistant and one day, while browsing through their classical bin, I discovered today’s piece, Missa in Festo Pentacostes (Whit-Sunday Mass).

Nowadays Anonymous 4, and those Spanish monks who recorded Chant have made Gregorian chants quite the rage, but in 1973 you just didn’t see this stuff in record stores. How it ended up in a shop in a strip mall next to a Taco Bell and a Goodyear Tire store, I will never know. My recording was on the Archiv label, which I believe was a subsidiary of Deutsche Grammophon. The label was attempting, in a very methodical fashion, to create a recorded history of Western music, from its earliest roots in the plainsong of the Seventh Century up to Bach and Handel. This album, was from “Research Period I, Series B: The Mass.”

The Archiv recording of Missa in Festo Pentacostes was performed by the Benedictine Nuns-Choir at the Abbey of Our Lady, in Varensell. Unfortunately, this recording has not been transferred to CD, and I couldn’t even find reference to the Archiv label, so it might be out of business. The only other recording of the Missa in Festo Pentacostes is by a men’s Benedictine choir, to which I provide the link below.

The Archiv recording started out with a single, old bell ringing, calling the faithful to mass. After a ring or two, it is joined by two or three others in different rhythms that create a kind of beautiful harmony. The interesting thing about that is that Gregorian chant plainsong has no harmony. Everybody sings exactly the same notes in unison. To add variety, sometimes a single voice will start out, and then the choir will join in. Of course, there is the priest, the sole male voice who sometimes sings the first part of the prayer, but he does not sing along with the full choir. I think vocal harmony was invented in the 13th century, so it took a long time of listening to those bells before someone figured out you could do the same with the human voice.

You would think that hearing these pure female voices float along slow and languorous would eventually bore you to tears, but you would be dead wrong. For me, it is the fact that this music is so simple and the voices so “untrained” (in the sense of operatic singing) that makes this work so appealing. Since this time, there has been a rediscovery of Gregorian chants and other early music, with works by Hildegard von Bingen soaring to the top of the classical charts. Many of these sound over-produced, and since when did monks become superstars? Even the film director, David Lynch, (EraserheadBlue Velvet and Twin Peaks) recently got into the act by producing a horribly overly-worked, new-age album of Hildegard von Bingen’s works. It’s sad, because when that happened the focus shifted to context from content, which is why I began listening to this kind of music in the first place.

Another sad thing for me was to see what happened to the little small town priest, whose sermons I found so thought-provoking during my time of questioning. Once, I persuaded my skeptical friend, Eric Tollar, to accompany me to mass to hear one of the priests sermons. During the week, the priest must have received a “talking to” by some church official saying that his sermons were becoming too heretical, because when we heard his homily, he had done a complete about face. His sermon was all about the infallibility of church doctrine and how questioning the rules and tenets of the church could only lead one to ruin. I was astounded at this change, and a bit embarrassed for having brought my friend. What a shame, I though, to see how one could be cowed into shutting off one’s uniquely human need to inquire into the whys and wherefores of our existence. Seeing this happen only exacerbated the uncertainty I had begun to feel about my status as a Catholic. And though my belief system and spirituality now lie in other schools of teaching, I still value my heritage, especially in the intensely spiritual works of music such as the Missa in Festo Pentacostes.

Purchase a Similar CD of Gregorian Chants

Wikipedia Entry on Gregorian Chants

%d bloggers like this: